In Afghanistan, Iraq, They ‘Gave All’ At Arlington Cemetery, Airman, Soldier Praised for Their Sacrifice

During the service at Arlington National Cemetery for Staff Sergeant Jason C. Hicks, his wife, Crystalyn, lays a yellow rose on the coffin. His mother, Taresa, is with a family friend, at right.

There are yellow ribbons tied around every pole in downtown Pageland, South Carolina, and American flags fly at half-staff. But the anguish the tiny community feels may be spelled out best in the banner that stretches across Main Street: “Thanks for everything. In memory of Jason Hicks.

The 25-year-old Hicks was one of six U.S. airmen killed March 23, 2003, in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Family members and friends say Hicks, who was twice deployed to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom, most recently in January, died the same way he lived his abbreviated life: His HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter went down during a thunderstorm while the crew was trying to pick up two children with life-threatening head injuries.

“That was just typical Jason,” said Eddie Rivers, chief of the Pageland Fire Department, where Hicks, like his father before him, was a volunteer firefighter. “He was always interested in helping someone else.”

At a rain-slickened grave site at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, Staff Sgt. Jason C. Hicks was honored for helping an entire nation. As a clear plastic tarp was carefully removed from his flag-draped coffin, and those who loved him most huddled close in the springtime chill, an HH-60 Pave Hawk roared overhead in a final salute.

“As we look around, we see that there are thousands of inscriptions and names that represent . . . the history of this great nation,” Chaplain Mark Thomas said as rain tapped gently on the corrugated awning. “This afternoon we add another individual to the record of names who are identified as loving this country more than self. The cost of adding the name of Staff Sergeant Jason Hicks comes at a high price. He gave all to ensure freedom for all.”

So, too, did Army Captain Tristan N. Aitken, 31, who also was buried at Arlington yesterday. Aitken, who grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, died in Iraq April 4, 2003, when he was hit with a round from a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher while riding in the lead vehicle of an artillery supply convoy.

Aitken, assigned to the 41st Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, leaves behind a wife of 16 months, Margo. At Texas Christian University, he was a member of ROTC. Ronald Aitken told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his son was a devout Christian who went to spring break in Fort Lauderdale while in college, not to party, but to preach on the beach to other students. “His faith sustained him,” Ronald Aitken said. “It was his shield. . . . He was a rock.”

With U.S. forces defending freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, for some at the cost of their lives, these have been busy days at the nation's preeminent military cemetery. At least five other service members who died in Iraq will be buried at Arlington this week, including today's service for Army First Lieutenant Jeffrey J. Kaylor, of Clifton. Kaylor, 24, a graduate of Centreville High School, was killed April 7 in a grenade attack about 20 miles outside Baghdad. He is survived by his wife Jenna, a Second Lieutenant in the Army.

The two met as members of Virginia Tech's Corps of Cadets. Like Aitken, Kaylor was assigned to Fort Stewart, with the 39th Field Artillery. He was deployed to the Middle East last August; his wife was serving in Kuwait at the time of his death.

Yesterday, Jenna Kaylor had this to say about her husband of 15 months: “Since the day Jeff entered my life, I have carried his soul with me everywhere. He is my strength, my love, my passion, my life. . . . The world is not complete without him — I am not complete.” The family has requested a private funeral.

Jason and Crystalyn Hicks had planned a traditional wedding next month, when he got back from Afghanistan. But four days before he left in January, they decided not to wait and have a second service when he got back. Crystalyn planned to be with her husband on his next posting, to Japan, his sister, Janet Barbee, said yesterday.

Hicks, who joined the Air Force in 1996 after graduating from high school and working for the Pageland Fire Department, discussed the upcoming church wedding in the last e-mail his sister received from him, on March 23, the day he died.

Their mother, Taresa, had a bad feeling when Hicks was first sent to Afghanistan, last July, for three months, Barbee said. She didn't want him to go. But Hicks assured his family that if he did die, he would be doing what he loved most.

“Nobody twisted my arm to do this,” he told his sister. “Make sure they give me my flag.”

Yesterday, his wife and his mother were each presented with an American flag at his grave.

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